Tag Archives: Memoir

In An Antique Land – Amitav Ghosh

In An Antique Land,  History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale by Amitav Ghosh

Vintage, New York, 1992

I own this, found it in a thrift shop.   Amitav Ghosh is a favorite of mine,  and with the events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East over the last few months I decided it was time to read it.

In An Antique Land is an interesting combination of history, sociology and memoir that reaches back into the twelfth century and connects it to our own time.

In the winter of 1978 Ghosh was studying for a degree in social anthropology at Oxford when he came across a book of translations titled Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders by Professor S.D. Goitein.  The letters came from storage chamber known as the Geniza, attached to an ancient synagogue in Cairo.  One of them, catalogue number MS H.6, was written in  1146 AD  by a merchant named Khalaf ibn Ishaq to a trader named Abraham Ben Yijû.  At that time Ben Yiyû was living in Mangalore, on the south-western coast of India.  The letter mentions a certain slave and sends him “plentiful greetings”.

Ghosh was hooked and soon found himself in Tunisia, learning Arabic.  In 1980 he traveled to Egypt, living in a small village called Lataifa, and getting to know the Egyptian people.

From there the author traveled to another Egyptian village, Nashawy and then on to Mangalore, India, living with and getting to know the people in the towns and villages.  He was attempting to track the travels of  Ben Yijû and of his slave, a man Ghosh began to think of as Bomma.

What I found most fascinating was the interweaving of the time lines, Egypt and the Middle East in the 1100’s and in the late twentieth century, the mingling of history and social anthropology, Ghosh’s openness with the people around him and his awareness of the pressures of modernization.  I admire his observation skills and his clarity.  Here is his description of the village during Ramadan.  He had wanted to join in but everyone had said he could not – he was not Muslim.

From the very first day of the lunar month the normal routines of the village had undergone a complete change: it was as though a segment of time had been picked from the calendar and turned inside out.  Early in the morning, a good while before sunrise, a few young men would go from house to house waking everyone for the suhûr, the early morning meal. After that, as the day progressed, a charged lassitude would descend upon Lataifa.  To ease the rigours of the fast people would try to finish all their most pressing bits of work early in the morning. while the sun was still low in the sky; it was impossible to do anything strenuous on an empty stomach and parched throat once the full heat of the day had set in.  By noon the lanes of the hamlet would be still, deserted.  The women would be in their kitchens and oven-rooms, getting their meals ready for the breaking of the fast at sunset.  The men would sit in the shade of trees, or in their doorways, fanning themselves.  Their mouths and lips would sometimes acquire thin white crusts, and often, as the hours wore on, their tempers would grow brittle.  From page 75.

Ghosh threads history throughout this memoir, how the trading in Northern Africa was dependent on many items from India.  How people worked, traveled and lived.  How even the word “slave” had a very different meaning during that time. Reading this book was a  reminder of  how that  area of the world was once,  peacefully, inhabited by people of different races and religions.  Why did that change?  As he reaches the end of his journey along the west coast of India, Ghosh presents a theory.

The journey ends on a beach between ‘Fandarîna’ and Calicut, at a small fishing-village, hidden behind the shelter of a sand-dune.  It is a quiet spot: a few catamarans and fishing-boats lie in a great crescent of sand, a vast beach that is usually empty, except when fishing boats come in.  The village is called Kappkadavu an on one side of it beside the road is a worn white marker which tells the passer-by that this was where Vasco da Gama landed, on his first voyage to India, on 17 May 1498 – some three hundred and fifty years after Ben Yiyû left Mangalore.

Within a few years of that day the knell had been struck for the world that brought Bomma, Be Yiyû and Ashu together, and another age had begun in which the crossing of their paths would seem so unlikely that its very possibility would all but disappear from human memory.  From page 286.

There is an  interesting connection between this author’s fascination with the slave Bomma, the historical trading  between India and Northern Africa and his novel Sea of Poppies. I cannot wait for the second book in the Ibis Trilogy, River of Smoke.


Filed under History, Memoir, Review

The Music Room by William Fiennes

fien0330444409.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_ The Music Room by William Fiennes

Picador USA, New York, 2009

Borrowed from my local library.

In September I read and reviewed  The Snow Geese by William Fiennes.   I loved it so much I wanted to read his new book.

The Music Room is memoir written in narrative style.  It is the story of the house, actually a castle, where Fiennes grew up.  It is also a tribute to his brother, Richard.  Richard, eleven years older than William and suffering from epilepsy, was the family’s emotional center as well as it’s focus, but never in a way that detracted from anyone else.

The Music Room describes the great house, part of which was open to the public, and the people who cared for it.

Mid-morning, they came into the kitchen for coffee.  I’d last seen them passing through the door to the public side: it seemed they lived in that other world of portraits, plaster ceilings, suits of armour, swords.  In the corner, under domed wire-gauze fly guards that hung on nails like fencing masks, Joyce sat on her high stool, feet on the rung.  The kitchen was her domain.  She put a pan og milk on the hob, a china puck sitting in the bottom to stop it boiling over, and made milky coffee for Mrs Upton, Mrs Green and Mrs Dancer, and hot chocolate for Bert, who arrived with the cut-grass smell on him, unhitching his dentures so his teeth floated out towards me on his tongue.  By half-past ten they’d have gathered in the kitchen, Joyce perched on her stool like a tennis umpire, a bowl of cake mixture in her lap while Mrs Upton, Mrs Green, Bert and Mrs Dancer too sat round the green Formica table, delving into the Victoria biscuit tin, Joyce like a mother hen presiding over her chicks, providing for them.

If I wasn’t at school, I’d sit with them.

“How old do you think I am?” Mrs Dancer asked.

“I don’t know,”

“I’m about the same age as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.”  from page 39.

This house is filled with history, the people who live and work there have lots of stories to tell.  There are all sorts of events held on the grounds,fairs, concerts and festivals.  Sometimes film crews show up, bringing with them actor and other interesting people.  Fiennes tells of the history of the land and of the house.

But the book is also an accurate description of the difficulties of  living with someone who suffers from epilepsy that has caused brain damage, the ups and downs of an illness that has no cure.  Fiennes intersperses his narrative with the history of the study of electricity and its effects on the brain, including the famous story of Mr. Phineas Gage.  He also includes descriptions of Richard’s bouts with anger, depression and lack of impulse control, and the amazing patience and love shown him by his parents.  I am awed by the graceful way Richard was accepted and included in their lives.

Whenever he was fully engaged in some physical task, his tongue dropped in front of his bottom teeth and pushed out his cheek below the corner of his mouth like a wad of dentist cotton wool.  Certain epilepsy drugs can cause unusual facial movements called extra-pyramidal movements, and for a while Richards pills caused him to circle his jaw unconsciously, as if he were chewing a cud, his lower lip enlarged and blubbery.   Now his tongue already probing his cheek in concentration, he leaned into the branches, fitted the blade and wrestled the saw back and forth until there  was only an inch of trunk intact.  We heard the first splinter-cracks as the tree teetered.  From page 61.

The Music Room is also filled with images of being a child and an adolescent  in such an amazing place, with such a challenging brother. Fiennes describes the private and the public spaces.  I had great fun just imagining an eight year old boy with free run of a castle, it even has a moat!

I start to look for ways of being alone, self-reliant, away from Richard and my parents.  I want, even within the circle of the moat, to be beyond observation.  So I disappear into the Barracks or out onto the castle’s roofs, scrambling across leads and stone slates, settling in secret enclosures like pockets among dunes, rooks crossing overhead between the worm-rich park and their rendezvous trees. From page 152

This little book is a loving  tribute to Fiennes’s brother and his family.  I found it very well written, lyrical and a bit melancholy.  I enjoyed it,  and look forward to other books by this fine British author.


Filed under Memoir, Nonfiction

Stitches by David Small

small023a1064e93a4e55932464d5667434d414f4541Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

W.W.Norton and Company, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

Stitches is an extraordinary memoir presented in graphic format.  David Small, an award winning children’s book author and illustrator,  has written and drawn a story that covers his life from babyhood to adolescence.

The graphics are pen and ink and ink wash, beautiful, dark and sad.  As with most parents, David’s Mother and Father thought they were doing their best.  Small illustrates the trauma and pain of childhood is a way that moves from reality to dream to nightmare, without being overly dramatic.  David Small’s story is intense but well told and his notes at the end reflect back on his parent’s lives in a very kind and loving way.

This book is turning up on many “Best Books of the Year” lists and the recognition is well deserved.  There are many fine reviews out there.  Here are a few:

Bermudaonion’s Weblog

Boston Bibliophile

Regular Ruminations


Filed under Graphic Novels, Memoir, Review